There has been a flurry of interest in the number of the Beast in Canadian and American newspapers of late. The reason for the interest is that the Beast’s number might not be 666.
A few years ago, a papyrus of Revelation was discovered. It was badly damaged, having only about twenty fragments that spanned nine chapters. One fragment, in particular, is of interest. About the size of a postage stamp, it includes part of Revelation 13.18. There we read, “This calls for wisdom: Let the one who has insight calculate the beast’s number, for it is man’s number, and his number is 666” (NET Bible). But the papyrus (known as P115) has a different number here: 616.
I saw the fragment four years ago at the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University. It was published over six years ago; just now it is making its way into popular literature as though it were a new discovery. When I looked at the fragment, the curator had to slice open its case because the verse in question was on the backside. He told me that no one had asked to see the fragment since it had been published. I looked at it under a microscope to make sure that the wording had not been tampered with. But even with the naked eye, it was quite legible. I am inclined to the view that the original wording here was 616, but a lot of work is needed to determine this. Although this is the earliest fragment for this portion of Revelation (third or fourth century), the fragment’s textual affinities and general reliability still need to be examined fully.
Further, the number 616 was known in antiquity and was discarded in the second century. Irenaeus, the patristsic commentator, wrote a chapter on the number of the beast, arguing that in the better manuscripts of Revelation that he had seen the number was 666 instead of 616. To be sure, his perspective was theologically motivated (he gave the interpretation of 666 as striving for perfection [represented by the number 7] but never able to achieve it). But the fact that he was writing in the second century tells us that BOTH numbers existed at that time. It may well have been Irenaeus’ input that caused scribes to alter the text to 666 if 616 was in the exemplar that they used.
Indeed, we know of one other manuscript (Codex C, from the fifth century) that has 616, and two others used to exist (codices 5 and 11) that had this number. But the point here is that one cannot simply appeal to the earliest manuscript and assume that the case is settled. Textual criticism is not done in such a simplistic manner. Date is indeed important, but there are several other factors involved. The Center for the Study of New TestamentManuscripts has begun to investigate whether this is the authentic number of Revelation. It will take scores of hours of research, and the results will not be certain. But if 616 is indeed the number of the beast, it will certainly have interesting implications. In the least, it will send seven tons of popular Christian literature to the flames!
Daniel B. Wallace, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts